Letter: It is time for a respectful speech movement

One of the most common critiques of U.S. politics today is the partisan gridlock that has led many to claim the current U.S. Congress as the least productive in the last 50 years. To many, Congress is all bark and no bite; members make the news not for passing legislation but for saying disparaging or controversial remarks. Some have become disillusioned with politics as a result, while others merely reaffirmed their belief that nothing meaningful occurs in Washington, D.C. Yet some, like us, entered UC Berkeley hoping maybe we, as bright, idealistic students of a new generation, would be able to shift the discussion away from disagreements and instead toward a dialogue that focuses on moving the country forward. Though some may call it naivete, we dreamed that a case for tolerance and active, respectful discussion could be made. While changing the nation is a difficult task, UC Berkeley could serve as a model. Such an environment could be fostered on our campus.

Over the past few years, there have been various instances of disrespectful speech among groups on our campus. One incident was the 2011 Increase Diversity Bake Sale, sponsored by Berkeley College Republicans. The club intended to spark a conversation, and they succeeded wildly, drawing national news attention. On campus, however, many had a different response. Some termed the bake-sale planners racist, part of a seemingly endless movement of people delegitimizing those they disagree with through charges of bigotry. Bigotry sadly exists, both at UC Berkeley and in the United States, but provocation is not the same as bigotry. Opposition to racial preferences in college admissions can be rooted in bigotry but is not necessarily a sign of it. While Berkeley College Republicans achieved their goals, students on campus both in support of and in opposition to the bake sale felt disrespected.

In 2013, the cries of bigotry continued. Our campus faced debate on a divestment measure regarding Israel. Members on both sides of the discussion reported being attacked on a personal, not political, level. This year, however, it has been worse than ever. The appointment of former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to the position of president of the UC system led to strong reactions by many, particularly those in opposition to the decision. That is all perfectly reasonable; there is legitimate reason to criticise her, as is the case with most politicians, and others feel politicians should not be appointed to run a prestigious educational system in the first place. What we found irresponsible and flat-out unacceptable was the unwillingness by many to even engage in a discussion with her. Instead, she was deemed a human-rights violator, a racist and many other highly negative, highly personal terms. Worst of all, she was compared to Adolf Hitler, a man who murdered more than 10 million innocent people during World War II — not to mention the fact that his actions sparked the war in the first place. All this rhetoric came from students representing our campus.

In UC Berkeley’s past, name-calling came from those opposed to our student movements. Today, our student movements do the name-calling. Expressing one’s criticism of a public figure is one thing, but over-the-top rhetoric serves no cause but to polarize the campus and often to embarrass oneself in the process. As students who were accepted into UC Berkeley, we all possess the vocabulary and maturity to voice our displeasure in a respectful, thoughtful manner.

As the years progress, our campus will undoubtedly be involved in a wide variety of controversial issues. It is necessary and extremely valuable to foster conversations debating topics about which people hold both strong and divergent opinions. But there is a danger when holding these discussions. Often, our passion and personal opinions can get the better of us and turn our disagreements into hatred and disrespect for one another. When dialogue turns into vitriolic mud-slinging and petty insults, nobody progresses forward, and instead, we remain entrenched in misunderstanding and miscommunication. Everyone should strive to enter every discourse with the goal of understanding one another’s opinions, even if we may not agree with them. More importantly, we should keep in mind that no one person is always right, and those we disagree with also hope to make our campus and world better, even if their ideas may conflict with ours. A common respect for all our thoughts and opinions helps expand and hone our own positions while developing an appreciation for a wide variety of perspectives.

Whether in the nation’s capital or on campus, the loudest voices are often the least respectful, and intolerance in every form serves as the foundation of exclusion. As UC Berkeley students and the leaders of tomorrow, all of us on campus have the power to remind society that we can change it. The easy thing to do is focus on what divides people and cut everyone out whom we disagree with, but real change requires hard work and often calls for compromises from all parties involved. Compromise is not a dirty word, nor is it the surrender of the the beliefs one holds. If compromise is unpalatable, an agreement to disagree without ending friendships or using personal attacks can suffice.

Furthermore, as politically involved students, we understand how emotional certain political issues can be — especially when they directly involve us, our families or our friends. It takes considerable effort to be the person who looks beyond one’s own opinions and makes an attempt to work with those who do not share one’s own beliefs, or at the very least, a person who respectfully discusses why they feel a certain way. We all slip up from time to time. Yet the difficult path toward progress requires cooperation and dialogue, and without a conscious decision to listen to and learn from others, everyone is left worse off.

Fifty years ago, our campus needed a movement for free speech. Now is the time for a movement for respectful speech. Hopefully, like the Free Speech Movement, it can begin here, at a campus known for leadership, and spread across the nation.

Signed,

Josh Cohen, junior; Simon Rhee, senior; William Morrow, freshman; Alec Kassin, junior; Alex Melendrez, junior; Madiha Khan, junior; Mary Papenthien, freshman; Nick Ornstein, junior; Joseph Simonian, freshman; Sean Brown, freshman; Arham Jain, senior; Michelle Nelson, junior; Eli Sinaiko, junior; Neal Nathan, freshman; Mike Drake, senior.

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